Beating Alabama

Governor Haslam gave his State of the State Monday and outlined budget priorities. Immediately, the Tennessee Education Association called on the General Assembly to improve on the small raise Haslam proposed for teachers.

Here’s the deal: A few years back, Bill Haslam promised to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay. That very same budget year, Haslam’s actual budget included no new money for teacher compensation. Since then, however, his budgets have included back-to-back four percent increases in funds for teacher compensation. This year, however, the budget proposal is for a more modest two percent increase. Should this budget pass as proposed, Haslam’s education budgets will have resulted in average annual increases in funds for teacher pay of about two percent. That’s not much faster growth than surrounding states. In fact, during Haslam’s term of office, actual teacher pay in Tennessee has increased by about one percent per year, very similar to rates in Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama.

Here’s what’s interesting: Tennessee teachers still earn about $3000 less on average than their counterparts in Georgia and Kentucky. But, our teachers are actually closing in on Alabama. Current numbers suggest Tennessee teachers earn about $300 less on average than Alabama teachers.

Of course, Alabama will pass a budget this year, too. And, it will likely include additional funds for teacher pay. But, if Haslam and the General Assembly were to double the amount of money allocated for increases in teacher compensation in this year’s budget, Tennessee would almost certainly overtake Alabama in average teacher pay.

Can we afford it? The short answer is yes! Revenue has been growing at about 5% this year when comparing year-over-year numbers. If that keeps up, we’ll see about $700 million in new revenue. Sure, some of that is allocated, but moving around $55 million to bump the teacher pay raise from two to four percent shouldn’t be that difficult. And, if we do it, Tennessee will beat Alabama.

I’ve lived in Tennessee almost 20 years now. If there’s one thing I know about my fellow Tennesseans it’s that we love to beat Alabama. Come on, Tennessee General Assembly. You can do it! You can help Tennessee beat Alabama.

Watch out, Kentucky and Georgia, you COULD be next!



For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Needs Improvement

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his final State of the State address last night and outlined the basics of his budget proposal for the next year. The proposal includes $55 million for teacher compensation, which represents a roughly 2% increase. This is down from the previous two years, which saw 4% increases in teacher compensation funds sent to districts by way of the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) had asked for a 5% boost in Haslam’s final year. In response to the lower-than-expected number, TEA President Barbara Gray issued the following statement:

“There is significant increase for investment in education in the budget. But in order to support the hard-working teachers that make Tennessee one of the fastest improving states in the nation, this budget does not do as much as it can,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “We’re hopeful that as the state economy keeps revenues strong and well above estimates, the state raise for teachers will increase in the final version of the budget.”

It seems likely the TEA will ask the General Assembly to find additional funds to further boost teacher pay.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


The Williamson County Game

Public education advocate Kim Henke writes about the tax game going on in Williamson County as the state’s wealthiest county “struggles” to fund schools.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

I’m embarrassed that last summer, WCS had to cut $6 million from the operational budget because the County Commission wouldn’t do the right thing and raise property taxes ahead of an election year. There is no reason that the 7th wealthiest county in the nation with the lowest property tax rate in Middle TN and the lowest in the state among communities with >100,000 residents should have to cut new teacher positions, counselors, and special ed staff. We shouldn’t have so many portables. We shouldn’t have kids in overcrowded schools eating lunch at 9:45 in the morning. We shouldn’t have roving teachers with carts teaching class in hallways and closets. We shouldn’t have principals mopping floors because the roof leaks. We shouldn’t have underpaid teachers and support staff who often work two jobs and can’t afford to live in Williamson County.
I’m embarrassed that WCS is in the bottom 10 of Tennessee’s 141 school districts in per pupil expenditures in a state that’s in the bottom 10 of PPE nationwide.
This is a fake funding crisis.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Got Mine, Want More

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.



For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


2018 Gubernatorial Education Forum

Last night, candidates vying to be Tennessee’s next Governor participated in a forum on education held at Belmont University and sponsored by SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education).

Five of the seven candidates attended the event. Mae Beavers had a death in the family and was unable to attend. Congressman Diane Black cited a “scheduling conflict.” That’s typically political speak for not wanting to answer tough questions.

Yes, Black is a Member of Congress and yes, Congress is in session. However, key votes on reopening the government after a brief shutdown had already taken place. Further, Black’s vote would not have been a pivotal one in that process.

Diane Black is asking Tennesseans to trust her to lead the state and she couldn’t be bothered to join a forum and answer direct questions on one of the state’s largest expenditures and a top priority issue for voters.

Now, a roundup of reporting on the candidates who did attend and participate: House Speaker Beth Harwell, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, businessman and former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, and businessman Bill Lee.

Here’s Chalkbeat’s report, noting a significant amount of agreement among the candidates on a range of issues.

First, teacher pay: 

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more restrained endorsement. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Plight of the DREAMers:

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Supporting Public Schools:

Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

READ MORE from Chalkbeat

The Tennessean has this break down of answers to three key questions:


Boyd: “We need to find the programs that work well and duplicate those.”

Dean: He would like to see pre-K statewide and “available in all school systems.”

Fitzhugh: “Under Gov. Haslam’s leadership we have moved pre-K where it needs to go and I would like to see it ultimately for every single child.”

Harwell: She cited “mixed results” of existing programs, wants to lean on nurturing high-quality options.

Lee: “Strong pre-K programs move the needle.” He wants to “make certain that the program that we currently have is quality, and we should move on that first.”

Just where was Diane Black?

The Tennessean reports she was in Tennessee, raising money instead of talking with voters about her education policy plans:

Black declined to participate in the forum because of a scheduling conflict. According to an invitation obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, she was attending a campaign reception at Southeast Venture, a development firm near 100 Oaks, that cost $250 per couple to attend and included hors d’oeuvres.

While I’m sure the snacks were nice and the haul of campaign cash significant, Tennessee voters surely expect a person running for the state’s top job to join with her opponents in answering relevant questions.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Open Seats

TC Weber reports that there could soon be as many as four open seats on the MNPS School Board.

He notes:

Pierce’s decision (not to run), along with an earlier announcement by District 6 Representative Tyese Hunter, means that at least two seats will change hands next go round. Word on the street has long been that District 2 Representative JoAnn Brannon also will not be seeking re-election. District 4 Representative and current Board Chair Anna Shepherd announced late last year that she intends to seek re-election.


For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Are TN Colleges Turning Out Bad Teachers?

You might think Tennessee’s public schools of education are doing a poor job of turning out effective educators if you read this story in yesterday’s Tennessean.

The article notes:

Many of Tennessee’s teacher preparation programs aren’t at the quality the state expects. A number of those underperforming are at state colleges — with none of those schools performing at the highest level.

It’s a “sobering” data point education officials are highlighting as they work toward addressing fixes in Tennessee’s teaching programs.

The article references the redesigned teacher preparation report card produced annually by the Tennessee State Board of Education.

I’ve written before about the problems with this approach.

The revamped report includes candidate profile (who is enrolling in teacher prep programs), retention (whether grads stay in teaching), and “teacher effectiveness” (which is measured primarily by the flawed TVAAS system).

TVAAS scores of graduates account for 25 of the 75 points available to rate teacher prep programs. That means the rating formula is heavily skewed toward an unreliable statistical estimate of performance.

At best, TVAAS is a rough estimate of teacher performance. A fairly solid indicator that a teacher earning a “5” is NOT a “1,” but relatively meaningless otherwise.

Now, of course, Tennessee has transitioned to new tests. TNReady has been fraught with problems, but even if it hadn’t been, the results would render TVAAS data highly suspect. So, 33% — the largest single portion — of the score attributed to teacher prep programs comes from a number that is essentially meaningless. Let me be clear: Schools receiving grades of 4 (the highest) or 1 (the lowest) on this metric are getting numbers that have no basis in statistical reality.

The next area of importance to a program’s score is the profile of the candidates enrolled in their program. Here, the state is looking for high academic achievers and overall diversity.

As noted in the article:

McQueen also has plans for a statewide tour to schools with the purpose of getting high-achieving, young students into the education profession, especially since preparation programs are having trouble getting qualified candidates in the doors.

This is predicated on the assumption that students with higher ACT scores will ultimately become better teachers. Whether or not that’s true, it ignores the underlying reality: Teaching just may not be a very attractive field. That’s not the fault of schools of education and it certainly isn’t their responsibility to fix it.

In fact, Tennessee has been looking at a coming teacher shortage for years now. Districts like MNPS are already seeing the impact.

Why might teaching be unattractive? Well, for one, the pay is not exactly great. In fact, Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than their similarly prepared peers. Boosting pay may be one way to help make the field more attractive. Alternatively (and much cheaper), the state could send the outgoing Commissioner of Education on a tour of schools to attempt to persuade high achieving students to enter a profession where they can expect to earn significantly less than other professionals and be subjected to a testing and evaluation system that according to some is “driving teachers crazy.”

Another factor? Our state under-funds the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) by around $500 million. So, new teachers face low pay, a problematic evaluation system, and under-resourced schools. Is it any wonder teacher prep programs aren’t getting enough qualified applicants?

Nevertheless, teacher prep programs are being held “accountable” for fixing problems over which they have little control. Makes perfect sense.

*NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated TVAAS accounted for 40 points on the scale. That has been corrected to accurately reflect the 25 points TVAAS scores comprise.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Powell Bill Takes on Corporal Punishment

State Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville has filed legislation to ban the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities.

WSMV-TV reports:

A state lawmaker wants to make it illegal for students with disabilities to be paddled at Tennessee public schools.

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, filed the bill Wednesday, after a News 4 I-Team investigation revealed students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher rate than their peers without disabilities at 60 Middle Tennessee schools.

Powell has previously tried to ban corporal punishment for all students, but that legislation met significant resistance and died in a subcommittee. He believes this bill, targeting only students with disabilities, is more likely to receive support.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Lightning Can Strike at Any Time

One of Tennessee’s top advocates of using public money to fund private schools through unproven voucher schemes issued a bit of a warning for defenders of public schools recently. After offering up a number of excuses about why voucher legislation has failed in recent legislative sessions, Tommy Schultz of the ironically named American Federation for Children said:

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

The comment was in reference to a surprise voucher win through a wolf in sheep’s clothing tactic in Illinois last year. As Chalkbeat noted:

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

While pro-schools lawmakers and advocates should certainly remain vigilant, it does appear that voucher legislation won’t advance during the 2018 legislative session.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.


Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.


Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.


Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport